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Health & Balance

Yoga: Fitness From the Inside Out

Cultivate the body and spirit together.
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WebMD Feature

Many people who want to get into shape are unaware that there is more to fitness than well-toned muscles and a tight abdomen. There is no shortage of exercise regimes that strictly promote the perfection of the body. Centuries ago, Western culture lost its focus on the interconnectedness between the body and the mind or spirit, and how each of these has the power to affect the other. There are, however, many traditional fitness modalities from Asia that aim to cultivate the body and spirit together. Let's look at yoga, one of the best-known.

What Is Yoga?

Yoga is the Sanskrit word for "union," in the sense that the body and the vital life force, or "prana," are expected to join in unity. Its various forms have been practiced in India for thousands of years. Yoga's purpose is to strengthen the body and make it more flexible, as well as to calm the mind and awaken the spirit -- in effect, to provide a physical, mental and spiritual system of health. It does this through physical poses, or "asanas," breathing techniques and meditation practice.

The Vital Combination

The physical exercises are a series of slow, gentle and painless stretches that gradually may increase in complexity as the student becomes stronger and more flexible. These poses are accompanied by deep, steady breathing that soothes the nervous system, improves blood circulation and, it is said, helps the prana flow through the body. In addition, there is a practice of deep relaxation that uses guided imagery and visualization to bring a sense of well-being. The combination of all these elements leads to a calm, focused state of mind and a great feeling of vitality.

Fitness and Self-Healing

People of all ages can do yoga, and the asanas can even be adapted for people with disabilities or special needs. The poses enhance muscle strength, coordination, flexibility and agility, and can help a bad back feel better. According to the National Institutes of Health, when people actively seek to reduce the stress in their lives by quieting the mind, the body often works to heal itself. In this sense, yoga can be seen not only as a way to get into shape on several levels, but also as a tool for self-healing.

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